NEW DELHI, Feb 1: Even 24 hours after Jharkhand remained without any government following the resignation of the Hemant Soren ministry and his subsequent arrest by the Enforcement Directorate, the governor CP Radhakrishnan is yet to take a decision on the claim staked by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Champai Soren to form the next ministry.
Champai Soren, the newly-elected leader of the JMM legislature party twice called on the governor on Thursday and handed him over documents showing support of 47 MLAs to him in the 81-member Jharkhand state Assembly and staked claim to be invited for the swearing-in of the new ministry.
Mr Champai Soren in his meeting with the governor cited “a situation of confusion” in the state, which has been without a Chief Minister since the dramatic arrest of Mr Hemant Soren by the ED on Wednesday evening on money laundering charges. He was accompanied by Congress legislative party leader Alamgir Alam, RJD MLA Satyanand Bhokta, CPI (ML) legislator Vinod Singh and lawmaker Pradeep Yadav.
He also wrote a letter to the governor pointing out that there was no government in Jharkhand for over 18 hours and a situation of confusion has emerged. He added that he had also submitted a letter of support signed by 47 MLAs from JMM, Congress and RJD — more than the majority mark in the 81-member Assembly.
Champai Soren met Governor Radhakrishnan at the Raj Bhavan in Ranchi with five MLAs from the ruling JMM-Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal. “We stand united… all 47 MLAs are staying at Circuit House (a state government guesthouse),” Mr Soren told reporters, “The Governor assured us he will soon take a decision on our request.” The Raj-Bhavan sources said the Governor “recognised” Mr Soren’s claim, but has not yet accepted it. Therefore a date and time for the swearing-in ceremony has not been announced so far.
Amid the political turmoil in the state, the ruling coalition has decided that the MLAs backing Champai Soren who have been herded together be flown out of the state to prevent any poaching heralding the start of “resort politics.” The meeting between Champai Soren and the Governor followed an emotional appeal in which Mr Soren, widely seen already as a Chief Minister-in-waiting, urged the latter to take immediate action.
While the JMM-Congress alliance had immediately proposed appointing Champai as the leader of the legislature party, the Governor had told them last night too that he would revert after considering all legalities. Champai again wrote to the Governor on Thursday seeking time to meet at 3 pm alongside all MLAs, but they were given a later time, and only five legislators will be allowed in the meeting.
After the meeting, Champai said the ruling coalition has demanded government formation at the earliest, and was told by the Governor that he would revert soon. MLA Pradeep Yadav, one of the five legislators who met the Governor both last night and on Thursday said, “We had gone to meet the Governor to stake claim to form the government. However, the Governor sought time to revert after considering the legalities. We told the Governor that much time has already passed and he assured us that he will hopefully revert by tomorrow.”
According to sources, such has been anxiety in the ruling camp that they have a “plan B” ready just in case things don’t go according to plan in the evening – flying all JMM-Congress legislators to Hyderabad. The Congress is in power in Telangana. Sources, however, insisted this is a mere contingency measure and they hope things won’t come to such a pass. Sources said two chartered planes are ready in case the need arises.
Earlier in the day, Mr Hemant Soren was sent to judicial custody for one day, with a definitive ruling on the central agency’s request for 10-day custody expected Friday afternoon.
The Ranchi special court before which Mr Soren – whom the agency claims was directly involved in the alleged ₹ 600 crore land scam – was presented this morning delayed passing its final order, because the Supreme Court has taken cognisance of a petition by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader.
Hours before he was produced in the special court, Mr Soren had moved the Supreme Court challenging his arrest by the ED claiming that the agency had “abused its power and acted in a malafide manner to destabilise a democratically-elected state government.” He also called his arrest “illegal and without jurisdiction.” Mr Soren has already filed one case against senior officers of the ED under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes Act.
“The ED is brazenly acting under the (diktats) of the central government and hounding the petitioner to destabilise a democratically-elected government headed by the petitioner…” he complained. A bench led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud agreed to hear the plea at 2 pm on Friday.
Champai Soren was, late last evening, chosen as the legislative party leader of the JMM after Hemant Soren stepped down and was arrested by the central agency.
Hemant Soren was arrested Wednesday evening amid high drama all this week, starting with “the case of the missing Chief Minister” that played out from Monday morning to Tuesday afternoon. He had flown into Delhi Saturday night and was reportedly seen leaving his home in the city’s Shantiniketan area the following night – on foot and with a shawl around his head.
The Enforcement Directorate turned up at 7 am the following day to find the house empty and Mr Soren’s whereabouts unknown. The agency said it seized ₹ 36 lakh in cash and a luxury SUV. Mr Soren remained “missing” till Tuesday, when he popped up in Ranchi to hold a meeting of his party’s lawmakers. Reports said he had taken a nearly 1,300 km road trip from Delhi.
After he emerged in Ranchi, he was questioned by the ED for over seven hours and became clear that he would be arrested by the central agency.
The ED has claimed that a dozen land parcels in Ranchi, measuring about 8.5 acres in total, are in “illegal possession, occupation and use” of Mr Soren and are proceeds of crime under the anti-money laundering law. The criminal case filed by the ED against the 48-year old JMM leader emerges from a June 2023 ECIR following raids conducted against State government employee and Revenue Department Sub-Inspector Bhanu Pratap Prasad at various locations in the State.
The agency, as per official records, recovered 11 trunks holding voluminous property documents from Mr Prasad’s premises along with 17 original registers. Mr Prasad was a custodian of many original registers of land records and their ownership details of the State, the ED claimed.
It alleged that Mr Prasad was “involved in the corrupt practices which included falsification of original records and had been a party with several other persons in their activities linked to the acquisition of landed properties in a fraudulent manner.” The ED shared this information with the Jharkhand government which registered a police FIR against Mr Prasad at the Sadar police station in Ranchi on June 1, 2023. The central agency took cognisance of this FIR to file its ECIR on June 26, 2023.
Mr Prasad, the ED claimed, was “actively involved in hatching conspiracies with other persons to acquire and conceal various properties in an illegal manner including the properties which are illegally acquired and possessed by Shri Hemant Soren.” These details were also recovered from the mobile phone of Mr Prasad, it said.
According to official documents, Mr Soren was arrested by the ED at 10 pm on Wednesday from the Governor House. During his personal search, the former CM “refused to remove” a religious locket and ring he was wearing.
The agency, explaining the grounds of arrest, said it recorded statements of several persons under the provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and this exercise “established” that 12 landed properties, situated next to each other, and measuring 8.5 acres in total, were under “illegal acquisition, possession and use of Soren and this has been kept concealed by him (Soren).”
It said a survey was conducted on these land plots that “established that the land is in illegal possession, occupation and use of Soren.” Mr Soren, on his part, contended that the said land fell under the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act and it “cannot be transferred” and the special regulation officer in Ranchi had restored the possession of the land back to its original owner on January 29. He also asserted that documents recovered from someone’s phone cannot be taken as “gospel truth” to implicate and arrest him.
In his plea before the Supreme Court on Thursday, the JMM leader challenging his arrest from the “precinct of Governor House at 10 pm.” The ED said it searched the residential premises of Soren in Delhi and seized ₹36,34,500 cash from the cupboard of a room “under the use and occupation of Soren.”
The agency claimed to also have seized some documents linked to this investigation from the house. It said the 8.5-acre asset was a “proceeds of crime” which was in “unauthorised and illegal possession and use” of Mr Soren.
Mr Soren, it said, “knowingly was a party along with Bhanu Pratap Prasad and others in the activities connected with concealment of original records for projecting the property acquired by him in an illegal manner as an untainted property.” It added Mr Soren was “still enjoying” the said proceeds of crime and hence was “guilty of the offence of money laundering as per section 3 of PMLA.”